Garment district’s unraveling

| 04 Apr 2017 | 05:31

On a rainy Friday afternoon, Swatch the Boston Terrier, famous for his many appearances on the reality television show “Project Runway,” lies fast asleep on the first floor of Mood Fabrics on West 37th street, oblivious to the surrounding bustle.

Designers step over his snoring body as they search through rows and rows of chiffon, silk, cotton and corduroy. Employees cut swatches of fabric, measure lengths of ribbon and help customers find the perfect button, all the while organizing and reorganizing countless rolls of fabric. People stream in and out of the store, some making a beeline for a particular fabric, others headed straight to the counter that sells Mood Fabrics T-shirts and souvenirs. Swatch sleeps through it all, heedless of a tourist leaning down to snap a photo.

Because of its role as fabric supplier for the competing designers on “Project Runway,” more than 1,500 people course through Mood Fabrics each day. Most are tourists, hoping for a glimpse of “Project Runway” judge Heidi Klum, or of the show’s famous fashion mentor, Tim Gunn. According to Mood Fabrics’ owner, Jack Sauma, who has been in the garment industry for 42 years, the show brought “tourists and life” to the industry, and the district, which occupies about a square mile from 34th to 42nd Streets, west of Fifth Avenue. But despite Mood Fabrics’ success, small designers and business owners in the historic district are trying to keep the industry alive as they face skyrocketing rents and hotels and businesses coveting space in the neighborhood.

“I used to have like 400 young designers come into the store, now I have maybe 20 or 30,” Sauma said. “Small designers can’t afford to be here.”

To fight off the prospect of a moribund Garment District, the city’s Economic Development Corp., in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Garment District Alliance, last month announced a $51.3 million support package for the garment manufacturing industry.

The EDC says that the support package will bring investment in new technology for small manufacturers, enhance workforce development, and strengthen business-to-business networking. It will also provide grants for businesses that wish to relocate to Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The initiative is part of a larger rezoning plan that representatives from the EDC and the Department of City Planning outlined to anxious fashion designers and fabric sellers at a Community Board 5 meeting on March 22. Many are skeptical of the initiative.

“What my concern is with what the EDC is offering is that it’s tied into the lifting of the zoning [laws],” said Samanta Cortes, a founder of Save the Garment Center, a nonprofit organization that has been working to preserve the city’s manufacturing industry since 2007. “If you lift up the zoning laws immediately, you’re destroying the industry.”

Part of the rezoning plan will include removing a 1987 regulation that requires landlords and building owners within the district to reserve half of their buildings for manufacturing space.

According to Cortes, there is not a strong enough “exit plan” to help designers and manufacturers relocate. Loosening the zoning laws, she said, will especially hurt small designers and business owners.

Cortes suggested the industry’s wholesale exodus to Brooklyn would not be that difficult for “vertical designers,” who have offices, selling rooms and production rooms within one building. But, she suggested that without a 10-year exit plan in place to ease the transition, the EDC’s millions would not help smaller businesses, which would likely suffer once the zoning laws are lifted.

Part of what makes the city’s Garment District distinct is the proximity of designers, manufacturers, and fabric and textile outlets within walking distance. The relocation to Brooklyn could also impact the Theater District, which depends on the Garment District being close by for costume design.

“What we have in New York City [is the] convenience of going downstairs and getting a button, walking down the street and buying the fabric, walking upstairs and speaking to a manufacturer ... to get a project out the next week for a client,” Cortes said.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer echoed industry concerns in her April newsletter. “I think this plan will break up what’s left of the Garment Center’s ecosystem in a way that will hasten its demise,” she wrote.

Brewer is planning to bring together community members, business owners, designers and anyone concerned with the rezoning for a “Symposium on Urban Manufacturing” on April 24 at the High School of Fashion Industries. Members of the Garment District have also started a petition to halt the rezoning.

For Mike Kaback, a city historian who has been giving tours of the Garment District for nearly 20 years, the scattering of the industry is unfortunate, yet inevitable. He said he appreciates the pushback against the new zoning proposal, but he also understood the city’s desire to direct the industry to a cheaper location in order to help businesses survive.

Whether or not the city’s rezoning plans come to pass, the Garment District has been transformed over the decades. According to the EDC, the district has lost 95 percent of its workforce since its peak in 1950 and industry space has shrunk from 9 million square feet to just 830,000 square feet.

“The hole is this big and they are giving a small patch,” said Sauma about the EDC’s proposed aid package to the district.

As for Mood Fabrics, Sauma says the outlet isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. With “Project Runway” filming nearby and a steady stream of tourists visiting, it would not make sense to relocate. “I don’t think my business will thrive or get better if I am in Brooklyn,” he said.

Sauma wants other businesses and designers to be able to stay in the area as well, one reason he takes pride in his sewing school, which helps bring new blood to the industry, teaching 200 students every six weeks.

“Once you take the industry out of here, I don’t think you will have the industry,” he said.